Wednesday is a National Day of Action for Early Learning. Parents, policymakers, and concerned citizens around the country are coming together to voice their support for early childhood education and demand that Congress and the president act now. Every year that we wait to act, a new cohort of children lose out on the benefits of early education. Here are some reasons to get behind universal preschool that may surprise you:
1. Preschool can help combat crime, teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates. When children have the benefit of a high-quality early childhood education, they make cognitive and social gains that prepare them to start school. These foundational skills allow them to build on their learning and knowledge through school and into adulthood. As a result, a child without an early childhood education is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teenage parent, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
2. Early childhood education has a better return on investment than the stock market. Some policymakers worry about the upfront cost of early childhood education. However, studies show that early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make—and that includes investments in the financial market. The estimated return on investment for high quality early childhood education is ten percent. In comparison, the average return on investment in the stock market is 7.2 percent.
Why does early childhood education pay off so well? Children who participate need fewer services over the course of their lifetime. The benefits show up almost right away, with reduced need for special education and grade retention, which costs taxpayers an estimated $7,500 per child. Over time, we reap benefits when these children become adults and need fewer public benefits and are less likely to be incarcerated.
3. The U.S. lags behind almost every other country when it comes to preschool, including Mexico, Chile, and Russia. When it comes to access to high-quality preschool, the U.S. is getting beat by virtually every other developed country, including Mexico, Chile, Russia, and New Zealand. Each of these countries—and most of Western Europe and Scandinavia—enroll a greater proportion of four year olds in preschool and invest more in early childhood education relative to the size of their economies. If the U.S. wants to compete in a global market and continue its role as an economic and military superpower, we must keep up with other countries when it comes to early childhood education.
4. Early childhood education is a bipartisan issue. Politicians from both sides of the aisle recognize that when we invest in early childhood education, we improve the lives of children and families and save money for generations to come. That’s why 27 governors mentioned early childhood education in their state of the state addresses and 14 were Republicans. Governors from Alabama, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, to name a few, all advocated for expanded access to preschool.
One reason why both liberals and conservatives support early childhood education is that it’s necessary to ensure our country’s economic health and military readiness. In fact, business and military leaders have called on the president and Congress to fund early childhood education.
5. Preschool can save families thousands of dollars in child care costs each year. Early childhood education is an expense that few families can afford. The estimated cost of sending a four year old to a center-based child care ranges from $4,000 per year in Mississippi to $12,000 per year in Massachusetts. For families living below the poverty level with children under five, child care costs constitute 36 percent of a family’s budget each month. In most regions of the country, the cost of child care exceeds every other household expense, including housing, transportation, food, and health care. Few families have access to subsidies to help alleviate the cost of child care; just one in five eligible families receives those benefits.
And while child care is expensive, the quality varies considerably. In many cases, parents are paying for child care that is mediocre at best. In state preschools programs, the states dictate quality standards, such as ensuring that programs are taught by certified teachers with a college degree and mandating a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Thus, children are much more likely to be in high quality settings that are preparing them for school.
Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.